Even Worse “Worst-Case Scenario” Planning

If you’re working with a financial planner, chances are you’re the kind of person who has also prepared for the possibility of an earthquake, hurricane, or wildfires. But have you prepared for potential civil unrest around the election? “What? No, that could never happen here!” you might be thinking. Well, it’s not something I’d ever worried about before either, but hear me out.

We are living in an era of volatile uncertainty on many fronts. I did not think to plan for the possibility of Hillary Clinton losing in 2016. Our household was prepared for an earthquake in 2017—but not the fastmoving Tubbs Fire that raced through our county, forcing people to evacuate in 20 minutes. And who among us can say they were prepared for a global pandemic? We rarely used hand sanitizer prior to 2020. Given the startling developments of the past few years, I’m now preparing not just for the unexpected, but for the worst case scenario (looking at you asteroid.)

There’s a 100% chance that the president will claim voter fraud in the 2020 elections; in fact, he has already done so several times. And some experts believe there is a tangible risk of election-related political violence. Given that right-wing militias have already mobilized at statehouses and protests and against imagined antifa arsonists, thinking through our responses would be the wise and humble approach.

Preparing for civil unrest is very similar to preparing for disaster. Let’s review the process. The first step is risk assessment: what could happen? What are the risks? Make a list of scenarios. White supremacist militias trolling the streets? ICE-deputized citizen vigilante brigades knocking on doors checking your papers and skin tone? Write them down, no matter how unlikely they may seem.

To protect yourself from sinking too far down a cognitive bias wormhole, try to engage your forebrain and evaluate the likelihood of the various scenarios. Can you give a rough percentage likelihood to each? Or perhaps give them a relative ranking? (Systems thinking pro tip: Have a clear idea that there’s a fuzzy boundary, instead of a fuzzy idea that there’s a clear boundary. Hold these weightings very lightly.)

Then ask yourself how catastrophic each scenario would be for you and your loved ones? I’m making this personal because the planning has to be personal. Once you’ve thought through the various scenarios, their likelihoods, and their potential impact on you and your loved ones, are there similarities? Can you group some scenarios together in terms of how you would respond?

In general there are two prevailing categories of disaster plans: shelter in place or grab-and-go. The pandemic of 2020 has been excellent preparation for shelter in place (always look for the silver linings). If one of your scenarios is armed white supremacists rolling into your city or town, you would likely hunker down with enough toilet paper and food to get by until order is restored. If you’re worried about a Trump victory, followed by widespread protests and an authoritarian crack-down, that suggests a grab-and-go scenario.

What triggers grab-and-go? In a wildfire, it’s the emergency alert system telling us clearly that we need to evacuate. But there’s no text alert for civil unrest. You’ll need to establish the triggers for your family. If you have reason to believe that this type of political unrest would pose a direct threat to you and your family, you might consider a pre-emptive evacuation if you have the resources to do so: the “political snowbird” response might look like leaving town for a few weeks or perhaps even a season to avoid the unrest. Working remotely and kids distance-learning from Hawaii and Costa Rica suddenly look highly appealing.

This suggests another challenge to the process: how does one cope with a prolonged period of multiple hazards? Californians like myself are still reeling from the wildfires, the pandemic, and power outages that piled up this summer. Where is safe to go? Can you get there and stay there? Will you be able to return when you want?

A couple of counternarratives: there’s a huge bias toward inertia and normalcy. The vast majority of people just want to get along with life. Related to that is the actual number of wingnuts, which is low; armed militias and their gatherings get undue attention in the media. I, for one, am skeptical of the strategy of everyone arming themselves. Right-wing militias have been stockpiling ammunition for years, so starting an arms race now may be futile; I also don’t believe that more guns is the answer to any of the problems we’re facing as a country. My belief (and my fervent hope) is that the continuation of massive, non-violent protests is the key to building the future I’d like for my son’s generation. We must believe that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word,” as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, as we work to bend the arc of history towards justice.

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